years ago on July th, 1945, the propellers of a darkened warship churned waters they had sliced barely a year before when the ship flew the flag of Fifth fleet commander Raymond Spruance during the Battle of the Philippine Sea (aka “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.”) Now she sailed not with a mighty host but alone through familliar waters in which the great battle had been fought.
Suddenly a spout of flame rose from the forecastle into the heavens, followed by another, capped by a fireball which burst from the ship’s smokestack as disaster struck the USS Indianapolis as she took two to three torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58. Killing hundreds of crewmen and plunging others into the ocean and a purgatory lasting five days that only 317 out of a crew of 1,196 ultimately survived.
In December, 1945, the sinking then claimed a final victim when the Indianapolis’captain, Charles Butler McVay III, was duly accused, tried, and convicted of “hazarding” the Indianapolis. An unjust verdict which left McVay vulnerable to years of emotional abuse in the form of angry letters and phone calls from relatives of his lost crewmen accusing him of being a murderer, abuse which finally led to McVay’s suicide in 1968.
But in 2000, after a quest for justice by Indianapolis’ survivors resolutely spearheaded by young advocate Hunter Scott, Congress passed a joint resolution exonerating McVay of any responsibility. A resolution the Navy belatedly appended a copy of to the captain’s service record [in 2001].
Nevertheless McVay, who personally ensured the survival of ten of his men during the five days adrift, has still yet to receive an award he richly deserves.
The Navy and Marine corps medal is the highest award given for heroism in situations not involving combat with an enemy. It was given to the second highest ranking survivor of the Indianapolis, Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Lewis Haynes, and ten other crewmen (some posthumously.) But McVay was not, even though here was a man who had no idea if rescue would ever come plagued by lack of water and food whose group of raft-borne survivors kept being stalked by a shark. Yet he still refused to let those ten men down even then. He did his best to keep spirits up by leading his men in song and asking them about their lives back home and tried to catch fish to augment their meager supplies.
And yet desk bound officers who weren’t there called him a criminal instead of a hero …
[In 2010 I] submitted a questionnaire to the sole Indianapolis survivor residing in Minnesota, Mr. Erwin Hensch. One of the questions I asked was whether he thought his skipper deserved the Navy and Marine Corps medal.
He firmly answered back “Yes.”
I urge the Secretary of the Navy to posthumously grant this award to Charles Butler McVay III.
Originally published in the Waconia, (MN) based newspaper The Pioneer under the title “A medal for an abused WWII hero” in their July 31st, 2010 edition under my old byline “Richard Krebes.” Text has been edited for clarity, to reflect the passage of time since original publication, and to correct typos.
The “two to three torpedoes” statement is due to information gleaned from Dan Kurzman’s book Fatal Voyage in which he claims I-58 commander Mochitsura Hashimoto claimed he got three hits on the vessel while most survivors only recall two. -Tony Held
This piece was originally published in the November 10th, 2008, edition of The Duluth News Tribune under my old byline “Richard Krebes”; it was originally entitled “Dives to the Edmund Fitzgerald should be banned altogether.” -T.H.
The Titanic, Empress Of Ireland, Lusitania, and Andrea Doria are ships that all share an unfortunate bond: Their wrecks have been picked over mercilessly for artifacts.
That’s especially true of the wreck site of the Titanic, which has become a tasteless carnival for tourist dives. A marriage even took place aboard a Russian submersible. It descended to the forecastle of the lost liner just so a couple, during their nuptials, could indulge in acting out a scene from an absurd Hollywood movie. The couple blindly ignored the stark fact that the Titanic disaster was no fairy tale love story. The wreck killed many married couples, and tore apart many lives.
The most famous lost ship of the Great Lakes has, so far, escaped such a vulgar fate.
The Edmund Fitzgerald sank 33 years ago today on Lake Superior. Her entire crew of 29 was lost.
Her wreck is haunting, for she looks like she sank just yesterday, not 1975. The fresh water around her is so preservative. Her paint is in good condition, her name still perfectly legible. There are even intact portholes and light bulbs, the latter waiting for electricity that never again be turned on by human hands.
Only taconite pellets from her hold, accidentally caught on the muddy runners of subs in 1976 and 1994*, and her bell – recovered in 1995 for use as a memorial with a replica engraved with the crew’s names put in its place – have been salvaged. The province of Ontrario has been very strict about visits to the Fitzgerald. Permits are needed to go near her.
However, given fates of the five ships mentioned earlier, I believe further dives to the Fitzgerald should be banned altogether. Twenty-nine men lie with her, 29 men remembered each time the ship’s bell is rung in memoriam on Nov. 10[th], 29 men who just wanted to do one more run that fateful shipping season before enjoying their winter vacations.
Tourist dives to the Fitzgerald would only turn the wreck from sacred ground into tasteless carnival, angering families of crew members who already have suffered enough.
Even further scientific visits are debatable given how the wreck has yielded all the secrets it has. There’s the danger of artifact hunters like those which emptied the Andrea Doria of valuables and turned a Lusitania propeller into souvenir golf clubs.
Permanently off-limits, the Fitzgerald would be safe from such excesses.
Her crew and their families deserve no less.
* The sub in 1976 was the U.S. Navy’s remote-controlled CURV-III, which took the first video and pictures of the wreck. Source: 30 years later, Great Lakes tragedy still fascinates By Susan R. Pollack / The Detroit News: http://great-lakes-treasures.com/The_Fitz_-_30_Years_Later.htmlThe sub in 1994 was the Harbor Branch Oceanographic manned submersible Celia. Source: letter from James E. Spurr to Richard Krebes, November 4th, 2008. –T.H